11.8.22

DIARY OF A TEDDY BOY - A LIFE WELL LIVED – by Mim Scala

Back when Derek Taylor called it the industry of human happiness, the music business attracted into its bosom all sorts of functionaries whose precise role was unclear yet whose contributions were crucial to the oiling of its wheels. Duckers and divers par excellence, one day they’d be managing a band, the next promoting a show or doing a bit of PR for someone, the next working as someone’s road manager or general ‘fixer’, and the next hooking one musician up with another so that the sum of both talents was greater than as individuals. These people seemed to know everyone who was worth knowing and had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and when I was in the midst of it all I met many of them, in both the UK and America, often unintentionally, and whenever I did they invariably welcomed me into their midst and turned out to be hugely entertaining company. 

        What they had in common was that they were smooth, well-travelled, well-tailored individuals who never lost their cool, and Emilio ‘Mim’ Scala fits the role perfectly. I didn’t actually get to know him until 1980, when he was operating out of an office building in Newman Passage which also housed a PR company called TNT, one of whose directors was my girlfriend, name of Jenny. She was in awe of him, and although neither of us were quite sure precisely what he did, somehow or other we found ourselves drawn into situations in which Mim was involved, the strangest of which was a visit to the UK by Mortimer Planno, a renowned Rastafarian elder, whose temporary lodgings in Notting Hill Jenny and I visited together. It was a bit smoky in there. Danny Simms, the Jamaican music entrepreneur who was among the first in this line of work to finance and promote Bob Marley, was another and I seem to recall meeting Rita Marley around the same time too, and helping Jenny write a press release about the purpose of her visit to the UK.

        Then Jenny and I parted company and Mim went off my radar until I was editing a book on Marianne Faithfull and there he was again, escorting her to New York to appear on Saturday Night Live, a hazardous assignment since Marianne was prone to lapses in judgement involving substance abuse that impacted on her ability to remain standing, let alone perform. Somehow or other, Mim rescued a tricky situation, and this episode is just one of the 57 short chapters that make up his roller-coaster ride of a life, all documented in Diary of a Teddy Boy: A Life Lived Well, first published in 2001 with a different subtitle but now updated and available again as a hardback. 


        The grandson of an Italian immigrant, Mim simply wasn’t cut out for the conventional life. Barely out of his teens, he found himself in a number of scrapes, one of which involved his exposure to rock’n’roll via Blackboard Jungle (1955) and a bust-up in the cinema, another a gambling den visited by the Kray Twins. Hanging out around Soho and the King’s Road, he became a movie extra – where he encountered future Led Zep manager Peter Grant as a Macedonian warrior, on the set of Cleopatra (1963) – then found a berth as a booking agent, representing both actors and musicians, many of whom would become household names. 

        Next Mim hit the hippy trail, hanging out in places where the weather enforced a minimal of clothing, squiring beauties, some of them from landed families, doing a bit of painting and recording ethnic music in Morocco, Spain and Sri Lanka. Returning to the UK, he worked for Island Records for a while, which explains the Jamaican connection, and went on to manage record producers, among them Chris Kimsey, who worked with the Stones, another act he’d befriended in the sixties, Brian and Keith – the least conventional ones, of course – in particular. Later in the eighties, he reformed The Animals, jammed with Jimmy Page and discovered that Marlon Brando loved faking loud farts in public. 

        If there is a theme to his book, it is that Mim was a lucky so-and-so, and that life was better when he was in his prime. Moving from the fifties to the sixties, Mim’s world changes from black and white to colour, and if you were in the right place, and had the nerve to stay there regardless of life’s ups and downs, the ride was unforgettable. Each of Mim’s 57 chapters details a different adventure, some of them wild, others hilarious, involving a cast of characters that make up a Who’s Who of the music and film world, weapons grade name-dropping on just about every page. And he isn’t kidding – when the first edition of this book was published there was a launch party I attended at which John Hurt gave a reading.

The author with Sir John Hurt

        Finally, it would be remiss of me not to point out that for all the fun and games it relates, the book is on the sloppy side as regards editorial precision. In a brief foreword, Mim explains that he is dyslexic and wrote the book “with as little help as possible from copy readers, ghost writers or editors”. He isn’t kidding there either, so be prepared to overlook some odd chronological lurches, slapdash editing and typesetting, and Townshend without an h.


4.8.22

BOB GRUEN & LEEE BLACK CHILDERS


To the D'Stassi Art Gallery in Hoxton to see my old pal Bob Gruen who has generously agreed that his pictures share wall space with a selection by Leee Black Childers, another old photographer pal of mine who sadly died in 2014. That’s not a typo: Leee really did spell his name with three e’s, though I think he was christened with two. 


        Leee was as camp as a Butlins holiday, a flamboyant gay man who died his hair blonde and didn’t need to came out because he was never in. He was drawn to Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd and the drag queens who assembled there, and he photographed them all. This led him to become involved with Warhol’s Pork, a sexually provocative play staged at London’s Roundhouse that enticed David Bowie. Before anyone knew it Leee found himself employed as a photographer-cum-tour manager at Mainman, the company formed by Tony DeFries to manage Bowie, where he was in his element.  

Lee with three e's

        Iggy and Mott The Hoople inevitably entered his orbit but, like everyone else among the colourful crew that manned Mainman, Leee was jettisoned when David realised how much this was all costing. Next, Leee found a natural habitat amongst the punk and new wave bands that followed, not least Jayne County, whom he managed, pre-Blondie Debbie Harry and the Sex Pistols. In mid-stream he befriended the Dolls, and many pictures of these acts, taken by Leee, can be found at D’Stassi. 

        As for Bob, a handful of his pictures – probably 0.0001% in reality – have been enlarged to what he described in an email to me as versions of “images I've printed on large scale canvas”. He’s not kidding, they’re huge and there’s three of them: John Lennon in his New York shirt (perhaps Bob’s best known – daughter Olivia sent me a PC from NY with this image not so long ago), Led Zeppelin (by their plane) and The Clash (live, looking like they mean business), all classic photos but they’re on the pricey side so you’ll need to start saving now if you want them to hang on your wall by Christmas. 

        One of Leee’s is pretty big too, a shot of Bowie, seen above, but I was more impressed by a series of Elvis, taken during his New York Press conference on June 9, 1972. This was a year and a bit before I became Melody Maker’s man in NY, but my colleague Roy Hollingworth was there to report on it. I was in London, green with envy. Here’s my favourite shot of Elvis by Leee.

        Last night Bob was on hand to sign copies of the catalogue and his own book Right Place Right Time, published last year, in which I make a cameo appearance. “I went to see The Stilettos, the band Debbie Harry was in before Blondie, with Chris Charlesworth, NY correspondent for the British weekly music magazine Melody Maker,” writes Bob. “Television as also on the bill that night, which means Chris was one of the first journalists to catch the new scene that was happening in New York City.” 

        I remember that night as if it was yesterday, but I’m a bit confused. We first saw Debbie in The Stilettos at the 82 Club in April, 1974, and she was a platinum blonde, her hair bouncy and covering her ears, but at this exhibition there’s a pic by Leee, dated that same year, that shows her with short dark hair. See below. 

        Maybe it was taken earlier in 1974, before blondeness became Debbie’s destiny. Next time I see Bob I’ll ask him about that. The exhibition ends on August 19. 


30.7.22

TOM WRIGHT

Tom in 1962, when he was at Ealing Art School with Pete

News has come through that legendary Who photographer and tour manager Tom Wright has died in the US. 

        The Who have many reasons to be grateful to Tom. A contemporary of Pete Townshend at Ealing Art College in 1962, he introduced Pete to marijuana and a host of great American R&B and blues artists. When he skipped the country to avoid a drug charge he left behind a wondrous record collection that Pete snaffled and which became the impetus for The Who’s switch from pop and C&W to Maximum R&B. 

        Equally importantly, Tom would go on to become the group’s first American tour manager and unofficial photographer, and many of his photographs from The Who’s earliest US tours have been reproduced in countless books and magazines.  

        Among the most famous was of Keith Moon alongside the Holiday Inn sign at Flint, Michigan, the scene of his infamous 21st birthday party. 

“Pete telegrammed me [in 1967] to say The Who were coming to the US to tour with the British pop band Herman’s Hermits,” said Tom. “They’d be in Florida in a week… and when I got there Pete suggested I come on tour with them and shoot photographs of the band. So here I was, 23-years-old, camera around my neck, passport in my back pocket, boarding a chartered plane because Herman’s Hermits were so big, they rated it.”

In 2022, with The Who esteemed as mighty legends of rock, pioneers in the art of performance and superstars both alive and dead, it seems absurd to recall that in the summer of 1967, on their first American tour, they were the support act for the far more popular Herman’s Hermits. With 11 top ten hits behind them when the tour started – The Who had only one – Herman and his boys were riding out the crest of the British Invasion wave, drawing predominantly female audiences for whom The Who were distinctly odd, especially when they closed their brief sets by inflicting serious damage to their guitars, drums and amplifiers. 

         Tom was on board for almost all of that first tour. It began on July 13 in Calgary, Canada, and closed on September 9 in Honolulu, a nine-week coast-to-coast jaunt on which they often played two shows in one day. It was a gruelling experience and probably not worth the effort. “It got us around America,” said Roger Daltrey, “but it did us no good at all.”       

Tom was working as an underwater photographer when he joined The Who at St Petersburg in Florida. “The Who came to Florida and that was the end of my underwater photography career,” he says. “These young kids would be yelling, ‘Where’s Herman, we want Herman’ and then The Who would start playing before the curtain came up,” he told Who biographer Richard Barnes. “When the curtain came up, they would be really rocking and everybody was just moving about, like Roger would be running around and Pete would be swinging his arm and hammering the guitar and Moonie would be kicking ass. And people were in shock. The band didn’t stop between numbers... or they’d quit playing for just a couple a couple of seconds, but it would be just long enough and BOOM into the next number.”

Toms shot of The Who at the Fillmore East, New York, April 5, 1968

        This was the period in The Who’s career when wrecking their equipment at the end of a set was a regular occurrence. “It was spellbinding,” adds Tom.  “A lot of times there was no clapping whatsoever, just dead silence. People in the front row were just sitting there with their mouths open, stunned.”

Tom would go on to tour manage The Who in America for two tours during 1968, photographing them along the way, on stage, in recording studios, in their coach and at hotels. He quit in late 1968 after accepting a position as manager of the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, one of the era’s most important rock venues. 

The tours that Tom photographed laid the foundation for The Who’s eventual capture of an American tour circuit they helped create. This hardly existed during the first British Invasion of America, the one led by The Beatles and Rolling Stones, and it developed as pop became rock, with audiences beginning to listen seriously to groups whose music was no longer aimed predominantly at teenage girls. During Tom’s tenure as The Who’s tour manager the group pioneered a new concept of rock performance, with the music they played becoming more and more sophisticated as their shows became longer and more expressive. They also became more photogenic.

The following year The Who opened their first headlining US tour on February 21 in San Jose, California, and while in the Golden State made a madcap, stop-start promotional film for ‘Call Me Lightning’, a song released as a single in the US and completed at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles around this time. Tom was on hand to photograph the group in tin helmets and fooling around with an explosive detonator.  


        Just as they done in the UK, The Who blazed a trail across America through the potency of their live shows and Tom was on hand to watch it all happen. Unlike the British pop bands that preceded them, there was no run of chart-topping US singles or historic appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and nor did they reduce teenage girls to screaming banshees as they flew from city to city. They didn’t so much crash down Uncle Sam’s gates as slide in through a gap after the doors had been left ajar by the others, but the hard work they put in ensured that in the fullness of time The Who would become a stadium-filling juggernaut in the seventies and beyond. 

Tom Wright’s pictures of The Who in America captured a fascinating but often-overlooked period in the journey of one of the UK’s greatest ever rock bands.  

Tom’s book Roadwork: Rock’n’Roll Turned Inside Out, published in the UK by Omnibus Press as Raising Hell On The Rock ‘N Roll Highway, features an intro by Pete which I posted on Just Backdated here: https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2015/03/raising-hell-petes-introduction-to-tom.html

An Ealing Art School reunion



26.7.22

TRAFFIC & FREE IN HOLLAND, 1970


I am reminded by a scan on Facebook of a copy of Melody Maker from July 25, 1970, that 52 years ago last weekend I was in Holland reporting on a brief tour of the country by Traffic, Free and Bronco, my first ever trip abroad on an assignment for MM. I’d only been on the paper for just over a month so this was a big deal for me, so much so that I remember calling my dad and sister up in Yorkshire to let them know that this new job of mine involved foreign travel, a fairly exotic concept in those days. Truth to tell, it was only the second time I’d been in an aeroplane. 


I have reproduced the actual page from MM above, and I remember the trip very well. There was a TV show somewhere out in the country and concerts in The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood missed their flight from Heathrow, and on the way to the TV station the driver got lost in the midst of a forest with Steve Winwood and myself in the back of his car. I was supposed to be interviewing him during the drive but our whereabouts were of more concern to him, and all I got out of the boy genius were a few quotes about his need to increase Traffic’s line-up. Having spent the last five years of my life as a newspaper reporter I duly wrote up a story for MM’s news pages under the headline: WANTED: TWO TRAFFIC MEN. 

“We want another two musicians in the group,” Steve told me in the back of that car. “We want another keyboard man and a bass guitarist but we are looking for people who can play more than one instrument. I am doing too much work. It’s very difficult playing bass and singing and playing lead organ in between. I could concentrate on singing better without playing bass as well.”

        Steve wasn’t kidding about doing too much work. I watched three shows and came away in awe of his musicianship, the way he played bass on the pedals of his Hammond while he sang and held down the melody on the keys. I think that for one or two songs he even played an electric guitar, a white Strat, while sat at the organ, still playing bass on the pedals and singing, truly the performance of a maestro. 

        I’d already encountered Free, then topping the UK charts with ‘All Right Now’ which seemed to have crossed the North Sea and was already familiar to Dutch audiences, and I’d been up to watch them in Sunderland where they caused a minor riot. It wasn’t like that in Holland where none of the concerts were sold out, even with Traffic topping the bill. I recall that a group of us, including Paul Rodgers, were walking down a street in The Hague when we heard ‘All Right Now’ blasting out from the speakers outside a club called Tiffany’s but when we tried to go inside the doorman refused us entry because Paul’s hair was too long. “Can I have my record back?” he asked. 

Back at our hotel a local covers band was entertaining punters and some of our party commandeered their instruments for a jam; Jim Capaldi on drums, Steve on a piano, Kevin Gammond and Robbie Blunt from Bronco on guitars and their singer Jess Roden on vocals. Boldly, I volunteered to play bass so long as our repertoire didn’t extend beyond 12-bars in easy keys which it didn’t, thankfully. In fact, we only managed two numbers before the local group demanded their instruments back. “It might have had something to do with volume switches being tampered with,” I reported in MM.

After watching the three shows, I wrote that whole page in MM about the trip and came away with an enhanced admiration for Traffic and high hopes for both Free and Bronco. “Full marks to Traffic who played superbly throughout the tour,” I concluded. “Free have yet to establish themselves abroad in the same way they have established themselves at home. Bronco are a group with a future.”

As you can probably guess the tour was an Island Records package, and I think it was at the Rotterdam show where Island’s publishing chief Lionel Conway and myself befriended a couple of free-spirited American girls who obligingly joined us in the hotel room we shared, another first for me insofar as all previous encounters of this nature had been conducted in private. 

This MM job doesn’t lack potential, I thought when I got back to the office and typed up my first report from across the waves. 

30.6.22

ELVIS – The Movie

About 45 minutes into this gaudy, fast-paced, acclamatory biopic of Elvis, the camera focuses in on its hero sat on a folding chair at an upright piano. He’s in the corner of a large room, illuminated from behind by light shining in from two windows, playing and humming a gospel melody, a reflective moment amid the madness that is going on around him. In fact, the scene is a direct, and deliberate, reproduction of a still photograph taken by Alfred Wertheimer during rehearsals for the Steve Allen TV show in New York on July 1, 1956, and represents an almost fanatical fixation on the part of this film’s producers to depict small details accurately. 

 The Alfred Wertheimer photograph

        There are many other examples: Graceland surrounded by farmlands when Elvis bought it; his cars, including a pink Cadillac and white Rolls Royce; the tuxedo and hound dog incident; stationary printed with Boxcar Enterprises; the way the 1968 ‘Singer’ TV Special is represented; manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker’s dancing chickens; the Barbra Streisand movie that Parker vetoed; his crack Las Vegas band and ‘Memphis Mafia’ entourage all correctly identified; and on and on.

        Perhaps the producers felt this dogged adherence to the precise truth was necessary to mitigate against a handful of glaring inaccuracies inserted to dramatize, and at times rather overegg, the plot, the most absurd of which is the suggestion that Elvis would have gone to jail on a trumped-up charge of behaving lewdly in public had he not answered the call of Uncle Sam and joined the US army in 1958. Allied to this, and unmentioned in any of the many Elvis books I’ve read, and therefore probably fictitious, is that Parker was threatened with deportation over his alien status by right-leaning politicians unless he somehow prevented Elvis from moving on stage in ways that sent teenage girls delirious but profoundly displeased their God-fearing parents. 

        Elsewhere I doubt Parker signed up Elvis for his very first Vegas season to pay off gambling debts – though this may have occurred later – or that Elvis fired him from the stage of the Hilton International, and if Priscilla arranged for Elvis to go into rehab, she didn’t bother to mention it in Elvis And Me, her best-selling memoir. 

        These wildly contrasting aspects of the screenplay aside, I enjoyed every minute of a two hour and 20-minute film that never lagged. While at heart a potted biography, the recurring, all-important side-plot hinges on Elvis’ relationship with the scheming, Machiavellian Parker who managed him throughout his career, taking 50% of his client’s earnings, and probably more. Parker cleverly manoeuvres himself into Elvis’ life, persuading the naïve singer and his equally naïve parents that he is indispensable, his best friend, when in reality he is Elvis’ worst enemy, at least as far as artistic growth and financial remuneration are concerned. Tom Hanks makes a great villain in his portrayal of the dislikeable Parker, overweight, lumbering, ugly and speaking with a nasty quasi-Boer accent born of his Dutch ancestry, of which Elvis was forever ignorant.

        Austin Butler makes a convincing Elvis, the only Elvis impersonator I have seen who mimics both the vital, pre-Army Elvis and the jump-suited Las Vegas showman in both his pomp and decline. Most of the set pieces of Elvis on stage are fantastic, seriously exciting, very loud too, most notably the lengthy screen time devoted to the ‘Singer’ special, and because the film is authorised by the estate we hear and see the real Elvis from time to time, as well as Butler splendidly imitating his stage gyrations and singing voice. 

Austin Butler as Elvis, Helen Thomson as Gladys Presley, Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker and Richard Roxburgh as Vernon Presley

        Supporting actors Olivia DeJonge, as Priscilla, Dacre Montgomery as Steve Binder, the producer of the ‘Singer’ special, and Luke Bracey as Jerry Schilling, the only member of Elvis’ entourage who encourages Elvis to defy Parker, are all impressive, their various roles in the story true to life. The same applies to Richard Roxburgh as Vernon, Elvis spineless father. 

        There are a few omissions or, at least, areas of Elvis’ life that are skimmed over unduly quickly. There’s not much about his movie career; indeed, the schlock film era, the period between his leaving the army in 1960 and rediscovering his mojo in 1968, goes by in a flash. A veil is drawn over Priscilla’s age – 14 – when she met Elvis in Germany, as well as her and Elvis’ subsequent romantic relationships. Elvis’ promiscuity and drug use are touched on, along with his temper tantrums that caused TV sets to become targets for his impressive arsenal of firearms. 

        The vexed question of why Elvis never toured outside of the United States is raised to a significant degree, the answer of course Parker’s inability to travel because he didn’t have, and couldn’t get, a US passport. His claim that it was for security reasons is soundly derided. Parker’s unwillingness to allow Elvis to venture outside of a tried and tested formula, his undermining of Elvis’ more radical ambitions, is a constant theme, as is Parker’s greed, his unshakable belief that Elvis remained little more than a goose that laid golden eggs. 

        The film closes with the real Elvis singing ‘Unchained Melody’ at a concert two months before his death. Although I’ve seen this heart-stopping performance many times on YouTube, I’d never seen this footage – or heard Elvis’ still remarkable voice – in the clarity it is presented here. Overweight, sweating, visibly trembling as he plays a grand piano, he gives it his all, an absolutely extraordinary display by one of the greatest singers of all time. It was the perfect ending to a very watchable film.


26.6.22

A MACCA STORY


Turning 80 and performing a Glastonbury set lasting almost three hours invites comment, so I have decided to share a story about Paul McCartney that until now I have reserved for private conversations. It is not about music or song writing, or The Beatles or bass guitars shaped like violins. It’s not even about vegetarianism or the vast wealth that Paul has accumulated, or being knighted or any of the other topics that regularly crop up in interviews with the UK’s pre-eminent rock personality. It is about being a responsible parent and passing on the right values to your kids. 

        In 1988 Mary McCartney, Paul’s first daughter with Linda, came to work at my employers Music Sales, initially in our music publishing department, the idea being that she would learn about this aspect of the music business so that, one day, she would know how to administer the rights to her father’s songs and those he acquired, like those written by Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins. In the event, however, Mary found this dull and when a vacancy arose for a photo researcher at Omnibus Press, a branch of the company that was my domain, she opted for the role, not least because her mother was a noted photographer.

        Mary was the baby cradled in Paul’s embrace on the cover of his first solo LP, and last night on the Pyramid stage the cover shot appeared behind Paul as he sang ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, the album’s highlight. Back in 1988, that baby was a personable young woman of 20, very sensible, bright, attractive and charming, with jet black hair and the look of her father about her. The job of photo researcher required her to obtain pictures – prints or transparencies, this was pre-digital – for use in songbooks and biographies of rock stars published by Omnibus. She knew next to nothing about how to do this so I took her under my wing and introduced her to the various photo agencies with whom we did business, and also some individual photographers. 

        Mary took to this work like a duck to water, and because she shared an office with me we became quite friendly. Utterly unspoilt by the circumstances in which she was raised, Mary endeared herself to everyone in the office and she talked about her mum and dad quite openly, without an iota of self-consciousness, as if Paul and Linda McCartney were no different from any other mum and dad, simply her mum and dad which, of course, they were, to her anyway.

        About two months after Mary began working for me in this capacity she mentioned that she’d told her dad who her “boss” was and that he remembered me from my days on Melody Maker when I met him a few times and even interviewed him in Studio 2 at Abbey Road. She said he’d like to meet me again and suggested that I accompany her to the recording of a televised interview with her mum and dad for the Terry Wogan Show that was scheduled in a week’s time at the Shepherds Bush Empire, then used by the BBC for recording shows.

        So off we went, in one of Paul’s blue Mercedes Benz cars, driven by a sturdy looking chauffeur, myself and Mary, and also Stella and James, her younger sister and brother. I took my reserved seat alongside them in the balcony of the theatre and watched a video for ‘Figure Of Eight’, Paul’s latest single, and then watched as he and Linda were interviewed by Wogan. When it was over I accompanied Mary and her siblings backstage and in a crowded dressing room encountered a smiling Paul who after greeting me with a handshake ushered me aside, into a corner of the room where we would not be overheard. 

        “You’re Mary’s boss now, eh Chris?” he said in his cheerful, unchanged Scouse accent.

        “That’s right. Nice to see you again Paul. Funny how this has ended up, isn’t it?”

        “Yes. So, tell me. How’s she getting along?”

        “Fine just fine.”

        “Really?”

        “Yes. She’s making a great photo researcher. Must be because of her mum being a photographer.”

        “Is she really doing OK?”

        “Yes.”

        “You’re not just saying that because I’m her dad, are you?”

        “No, no, really.”

        “Or because of who I am?”

“No honestly, she’s great.”

        Paul didn’t seem convinced. So, he took another tack. “Is there anything she does that’s bad?”

        “Not that I can think of.”

        “Well, have a think then.”

        “OK. There is one thing that that she does that kinda annoys me.”

        “What’s that?”

        “Well, she spends a lot of time on the phone.”

        “Personal calls?”

        “Yes.”

        “Just like her mother then. Linda is always on the phone. Does Linda call her at work?”

        “Yes, sometimes.”

        “Oh dear, I’ll have to put a stop to that. Nice to see you again. Bye Chris.”

        And with that Paul turned away into the mass of people crowded into the room, and I said good night to Mary and left, not thinking any more about it.

        It was about two weeks later when the phone rang on Mary’s desk. She wasn’t around so I answered it. It was Linda.

        “Oh, is that Chris?” said the voice on the other end. “It’s Linda, Mary’s mum. I’m so sorry for calling her at work. Paul told me I shouldn’t but I just want to know whether she’s coming to down to Peasmarsh this weekend or staying in London. Look, I’m really, really sorry to bother you like this but can you get her to call me back. I promise I won’t keep her on the phone and please don’t tell Paul I called if you happen to speak to him. He said it wasn’t right to call her at work and he was right about that. Mary is there to work not to chat with me. I’m so sorry again Chris.” 


For years now, I have imagined that conversation over the breakfast table at one of the McCartney residences. Paul McCartney, of all people, telling his wife not to call their daughter at work because I didn’t like it. I’ve seen Mary a handful of times over the years since she left our company, and we always smile about it. 


21.6.22

THE ISLANDER: My Life in Music and Beyond by Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley


It was my misfortune that the first and only time I encountered Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell resulted in a prolonged and rather unpleasant exchange of views about the merits of a concert by Traffic at the New York Academy of Music on September 18, 1974, that I reviewed for Melody Maker in less than complimentary terms. 

        “The problem was Chris Wood,” I wrote. “On the opening night Wood collapsed half way through Traffic's first set and didn’t return for the second. At the show I saw, Wood was obviously under the influence of something that prevented him not only from playing with his usual taste, but from pitching the right notes or playing his lines at the right moment.” I closed the review by suggesting that Traffic would have fared better without him.  

        A week or two after this review appeared I happened to be having lunch with my friend Peter Rudge at the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street when Blackwell passed by our table. Rudge knew him well and introduced us but no sooner had he mentioned my name than Blackwell launched into the fierce diatribe about the review. I stood my ground. Blackwell even admitted he hadn’t actually been at the show and, in any case, I figured I had a bit of credit with Island through writing positively, and at length, about Free, Mott The Hoople and Cat Stevens, among others, not that he took this into consideration. The argument raged and was not resolved, though as I recall he threatened to remove Island’s advertising from MM, which turned out to be bluster. After all, we sold 200,000 a week in those days. 

        This was doubly unfortunate for me because I loved Traffic and loved Island Records, the coolest label in town. Like most critics with any gumption I rated Steve Winwood as among the most gifted of UK musicians, and records by his group Traffic, along with those by Free, Mott and Stevens, though not, sadly, Nick Drake, were on heavy rotation in my Bayswater flat. Furthermore, the soundtrack to The Harder They Come turned me into a lifelong reggae fan, and Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire soon joined my other well-played Island albums. 

        All of this came back to me as I read The Islander: My Life In Music And Beyond, Blackwell’s engaging autobiography, written with Paul Morley, whose uncharacteristically restrained editorial contribution belies his tendency to attract controversy and befuddle the reader. 

        Born, as he puts it, into the “Lucky Sperm Club”, Blackwell was a bright, personable, handsome Jack The Lad destined to go places whatever fate threw his way. He learned the record trade in Jamaica, the island of his birth where his family, loosely descended from the Crosse & Blackwell preserve dynasty, occupied a fairly lofty position in society. Expelled from Harrow at 16 for rebellious tendencies, the teenage Blackwell ditched education and scrounged around, mixing with family friends like Ian Fleming, Errol Flynn and Noel Coward, until he found a niche role delivering US R&B singles to premises equipped with juke boxes. Somehow, he was equally at home among the posh white folk and impoverished black population, a rare social skill, and various asides leave little doubt he was on the side of the oppressed in the colonial debate. He also did location work for the first James Bond movie, Dr No, and might have gone into the film business were it not for a soothsayer who advised music. 

        These early chapters offer a fascinating insight into the Jamaican record industry and culture, and explain how Blackwell came to love reggae music and absorb it from the ground up. His return to the UK just as The Beatles were getting off the ground was timely, not the only slice of luck that went his way. Famously, the first hit he produced, in 1964, was the ska-tinged ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small, and by this time he’d put in the hours and knew what he was doing. Wisely, he kept a low profile, and made many useful contacts in London’s music world when it was a bit a free-for-all, working alongside managers like Brian Epstein, Andrew Oldham, Kit Lambert and Peter Grant who, like him, were forging a path into unknown territory. 

        Millie was a one-hit-wonder, a lesson Blackwell took to heart insofar as it taught him the wisdom of nurturing musicians for long term careers. The first of these was Steve Winwood, whose genius he recognised in The Spencer Davis Group, whom he managed. He promptly signed Winwood to his own Island Records and supported Traffic’s whimsical excursions, but he hated Blind Faith, especially Ginger Baker with whom he experienced “fifteen minutes of pure fury” during a row in a recording studio. A drug related customs incident didn’t go well either.*

        We learn a lot about Winwood, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Cat Stevens, his fondness for in-house music nut Guy Stevens whose record collection was “considered to be the best in the country”, and love-hate relationship with maverick Jamaican record producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. We also learn that Blackwell passed on Elton John – “too insipid” – Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the latter two because he thought, correctly, that they would dominate Island to the detriment of others. He missed out on Dire Straits because he was looking the other way during an audition, and saw no future in Madonna. 

        The two biggest acts Blackwell did sign, of course, were Bob Marley and U2. The former, along with the other two original Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, turned up in his office one day looking for a handout to buy a flight home. To the dismay of his Island staff, who thought they’d rip him off, he gave them £4,000 to make an album which turned out to be Catch A Fire, shrewdly upgraded at his behest to meet the expectations of white rock fans. 

        Blackwell writes about Marley with admiration and great affection, not so Tosh and Livingstone, who resented what they saw as favouritism. Detained elsewhere, he was lucky not to have in the firing line during the attempt on Marley’s life in 1976, and following his death in 1981 the label saw to it that Marley became even more celebrated than in life, largely through the Legend compilation, the brainchild of Dave Robinson who’d joined Island from Stiff and didn’t share Blackwell’s reverence for Marley’s spiritual side. 

        Discussion on U2 is left for much later in the book, after chapters that take in Free (but not Bad Company, of whom there’s scant mention), Roxy Music, Grace Jones, Robert Palmer, Tom Waits and many others, several of whom recorded at Blackwell’s Compass Point studio in the Bahamas. Somewhat ironically, the best-selling album to have been recorded there is AC/DC’s Back In Black, hardly Island fare, but the studio was the home of Sly and Robbie who pissed off James Brown by failing The Godfather of Soul’s subservience test.  

        Blackwell’s interest in U2 was prompted by their press officer Rob Partridge, who in 1973 had taken over from me as Melody Maker’s news editor before joining Island four years later. Rob persuaded a slightly reluctant Blackwell to see them at the Half Moon in Herne Hill. “There seemed to be more people in my entourage than in the paying audience but U2 played as though there were a thousand in front of them,” he writes. “They were bursting out of themselves.” Though unconvinced by their music, Blackwell signed them anyway, adopting a hands-off role that served both parties well, a bit like Ahmet Ertegun’s attitude towards Led Zeppelin, Atlantic’s best-selling act.

        Island grew and grew, at one time employing 120 staff in America alone, and in the end it simply grew too big for him, so in 1989 Blackwell sold out to PolyGram for almost $300 million, 10% of which went to U2 who’d negotiated a stock deal in lieu of royalties that some years earlier Blackwell was unable to pay. This was five times more than the royalties they would have earned, not the only strategic error Blackwell cheerfully admits in the books 400 pages. 

        Following Island Blackwell launched Palm Pictures but found greater success as a hotelier and real estate developer, his current occupation. This began with his acquisition of Golden Eye, the former home of Ian Fleming where he wrote his James Bond books, now a boutique hotel, and in this respect The Islander ends where it began, on the island where Blackwell clearly feels most at home. Back in Jamaica during the pandemic, musing in an epilogue on those he has lost, among them, touchingly, former spouse Mary Vinson, we can but envy the extraordinary life he has led. 

        The book is not without its flaws. Peter Grant wasn’t managing The Jeff Beck Group in 1964 – they weren’t formed until 1967 – or Stone The Crows, as stated on page 107. There are some confusing chronological leaps, and here and there the proof readers have taken their eye off the ball, not least by crediting six photographs to Adrian Boor, which is ironic as my good friend Adrian Boot is among the least boorish people I know. 

        There’s a 16-page photo section, including a rare pic of Blackwell with The Wailers – rare insofar as he avoided being photographed with Marley lest he seem like the patronising white man. In a nice touch, the cover and interior heads are set in Cooper Black, the soft, chunky font much favoured by Island’s graphics department for their LP sleeves and, of course, the ‘i’ in Island on those pink labels. The index is skimpy. 

____

*Many years ago, I was sent the manuscript for Hellraiser, Ginger Baker’s autobiography with a view to publishing it with Omnibus Press. I passed, partly because it was shamelessly self-serving and partly because it was riddled with mistakes, one of which was a constant reference to the head of Island Records as Chris Blackmore. I now realise this was probably a deliberate slight




7.6.22

JOHN LENNON – 1980: THE LAST DAYS OF HIS LIFE by Kenneth Womack

I wasn’t entirely sure what John Lennon meant when he sent me a postcard on January 28, 1977, telling me he was ‘invisible’ but it became pretty clear soon enough. In the years that followed he was invisible to the rock world, wiling away his days on an extended break from music and all the promotional chores that releasing records entailed. The only other musician of John’s stature to have taken a similar step back is David Bowie, ironically also during the last decade of his life, a career decision that might have been promoted by John’s absenteeism.


        Only a select few people knew precisely what John was up to: Yoko, of course, and their infant son Sean; staff at their homes in New York’s Dakota apartment building and elsewhere; a few people from his past, among them the other three Beatles, the odd musician and, probably, son Julian from his first marriage; and a handful others that John bumped into in the course of his wanderings. 

        John was all too well aware that the contradiction between the enormous fame he attained as the boss Beatle and the lower-than-low profile he maintained from 1976 onwards would attract intrusive press speculation but, by and large he succeeded in his quest to become invisible. His whereabouts and doings between 1976 and 1980 were shrouded in relative secrecy at the time and only became public knowledge in a sort of drip-by-drip fashion, mostly from interviews undertaken immediately before his assassination in December 1980 and biographical or memoir-style books published thereafter. Now, all that information has been assembled into this one volume, somewhat misleadingly titled since the first half of the book liberally strays into the half-dozen or so years before 1980. 

What we learn is that John’s relationship with Yoko had its ups and downs, and they spent time apart, albeit remaining faithful in the bedroom department after the 1973-4 separation. Such separations, although temporary, invariably caused John anguish, especially if for some reason he was unable to reach Yoko by phone. Yoko took care of business, buying cows and houses, often basing her decisions on numerical or astronomical charts, leaving John to take up the role of hands-on father to Sean, perhaps to make up for paying scant attention to Julian’s upbringing when he was distracted by Beatle business. 

        He stayed home a lot, read books, magazines and newspapers and watched TV, following the news avidly. He picked up a guitar every now and again to write a snatch of a tune, often recording these bits and pieces on cassette and hoarding them until such a time when he opted to release music again. He was largely graceful to fans who encountered him on his wanderings in the New York Westside neighbourhood where he lived, even to those who somehow eluded the Dakota’s security system, but the most important thing is that he was agreeably content, relaxed, unburdened by any contractual obligations, free to do precisely what he wanted, even learn to bake bread.

        With his green card secured, he was able to travel outside of the US without fear of being refused re-entry, and such travels are covered here in extraordinary detail, thanks no doubt to the author’s interviews with Fred Seaman, the Lennon’s PA, whose 1991 book The Last Days Of John Lennon covered much the same ground. John flew to Japan with Yoko, and, alone, to South Africa for no good reason than a need to observe the Table Mountain at close quarters. He also piloted a yacht to Bermuda in challenging weather conditions, the perilous nature of the voyage suggesting we were lucky not to have lost John to the Black Hole of Andros close to Bermuda, the journey’s destination. This adventure reflects his wilful, slightly eccentric character, the odd leaps and bounds he took when no one, not even Yoko, was looking. Such escapades endear him to me almost as much as his music. 

As the years rolled by, however, the need to make music was uppermost in his mind and second half of the book, largely devoted to 1980, faithfully records numerous sessions under the production aegis of Jack Douglas at the Hit Factory studio in New York. We learn in tremendous detail how the songs that mainly comprised the Double Fantasy album were written and recorded and who played on them, which is not quite as interesting as John’s peripatetic habits in the first half, though there are tantalising particulars of tentative plans he was making for a world tour in 1981. Finally, I was pleased the author avoided all mention of John’s assassin and any gory details of the appalling crime he committed. 

Still, for a detailed account of John’s final days this book is unrivalled. In the picture on the cover, taken by Jack Mitchell on November 2, 1980, during an assignment for The New York Times, bespectacled John, his smile assured, his arms folded, looks to me rather like a left-leaning lecturer on sociology at a red-brick university in the north of England. Among the photos inside is a map of the Dakota’s interiors, as well as a few other pictures from the lost half-decade I hadn’t seen before. There are copious source notes, a comprehensive bibliography but the books lacks an index.  


3.6.22

ELVIS - IN THE NEWS


Elvis is in the news this week, which might mean sales of Caught In A Trap, my book about his kidnapping in 1975, finally reach three figures. 

        Firstly, there is a new biopic about him out which stars Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as Col Tom Parker, which I will go and see when it opens in Guildford later his month; and secondly, reports have surfaced that those who control his estate are clamping down on Elvis-styled weddings in Las Vegas, which is the thin end of the wedge for romantically inclined couples eager to tie the knot to the strains of ‘Love Me Tender’.

        The Authentic Brands Group, which control Elvis’ name and image, among others, has sent cease-and-desist letters to several Vegas chapels that offer Elvis-themed ceremonies, the inference being that if they don’t comply they’ll feel the weight of ABG’s high powered lawyers and very deep pockets, a chilling prospect indeed. 

        In their letter, AGB state that while they have no intention of shutting down the Elvis chapels they are, “seeking to partner with each of these small businesses to ensure that their use of Elvis’ name, image and likeness are officially licensed and authorized by the estate, so they can continue their operations.” 

        In other words, they want a slice of the action. This is a bit rich, especially as a glance at the internet reveals there seems to be more Elvis-style wedding venues in Vegas than actual religious settings, and what’s more they’ve been in business for years. So why now? 

        Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates by Eamonn Forde, the bible of death branding, gives details of earnings by musical estates from the years 2001 to 2020. In seven of those years Elvis tops the charts, comes second eight times and is never out of the top five, with total earnings during this period of $894 million. But they evidently don’t feel this is enough. 

        Now I’m not planning to remarry in a Vegas Elvis chapel or anywhere else for that matter, but if these places do yield to AGB and cough up whatever fees can be negotiated, it’ll no doubt be passed on to the bride and groom, making weddings that bit more expensive due to the premium ABG will collect. 

        Furthermore, AGB’s letter states that they are seeking to shut down unauthorised use of “Presley’s name, likeness, voice image, and other elements of Elvis Presley’s persona in advertisements, merchandise and otherwise,” the inference being that AGB control all this.

        So maybe I ought to have been worried by writing Caught In A Trap. As it happened, the book included snatches of lyrics from six songs associated with Elvis (‘Love Me Tender’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Suspicious Minds’, ‘One Night’, ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Peace In The Valley’) and in 2016, when I’d finished writing it, I played by the rules and wrote to the publishers of these songs seeking permission to use the lyrics. Only one, ‘Love Me Tender’, was controlled by the Elvis estate but they didn’t even bother to reply to my letter. The rest, barring ‘Peace In The Valley’ which was out of copyright, asked for small sums  £25 I think – to clear their use.

        I have read that the new film has been ‘authorised’ by AGB but this does not augur well for it in my opinion. I really hope it isn’t a whitewash but I fear the worst. 

        Finally, since shamelessness is no stranger to the world of Elvis these days, heres a plug for my book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Caught-Trap-Kidnapping-Chris-Charlesworth





28.5.22

IN PRAISE OF ALBERT LEE

Asked by me in 1970 to name his favourite guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore didn’t hesitate. “Albert Lee,” he replied. Pressed further Ritchie, never the humblest of men – “I can play the ass off most guitarists around today,” he once told me – admitted that Lee, Hendrix and Jim Sullivan, who’d given him lessons in the fifties when they lived in the same street in Hounslow, were the only UK guitarists he considered to be superior to himself.

        I ought to have known about Albert Lee but I didn’t, not then. I was new to Melody Maker in 1970 and while I knew all the guitarists in the spotlight – Clapton, Beck, Page, Townshend and the like – I wasn’t familiar with Albert Lee. So, I made enquiries and discovered that at the time he played in a band called Head Hands & Feet that was signed to Island. A call to their PR, my friend David Sandison, and their LP arrived on my desk at MM. It contained Albert’s signature song ‘Country Boy’ and after I’d played it a few times I realised what Ritchie was on about.

        I saw Head Hands & Feet three times in the next couple of years, supporting Mott The Hoople at the Albert Hall in July 1971, and in the final paragraph of a review devoted almost entirely to Mott, wrote: “Head, Hands & Feet opened the show, spotlighting Albert Lee’s guitar mastery to the full. His country sounding solo on ‘Country Boy’ was one of the best guitar solos I have heard in a long time.”

        Now a fan, further exposure to Albert occurred at the Weeley Festival near Clacton-on-Sea that same year and at the Lincoln Festival a year later. Each time my attention was glued to the guitarist.

        He was a skinny little guy with a big grin and a mop of dark curly hair that looked like it had never seen a comb. He bent over his butterscotch Telecaster and played like an American, like the session cowboys of Nashville or his hero James Burton. His solos were dazzling, his licks phenomenal, his runs as quick as lightning, his fingering as accurate as a pocket calculator. He seemed modest too, for while he played like a demon he was never showy, never one to ‘make it cry or sing’, as Mark Knopfler put it, never one to screw up his eyes as if in agony or otherwise invite his audience to look at him and him only. He was restrained when someone else was soloing, content to strum chords and fade back into the rhythm section, and it seemed to me that he shrugged off his skills as if it was nothing, really nothing, just what he did, that’s all. He was what was known in the trade as a musicians’ musician, secure in his skills, a master craftsman. 

        I wanted to meet Albert but never got the chance, not until 1976 when I was doing a story for MM on Emmylou Harris. She was performing at a club on Long Island near New York where I lived at the time and in the afternoon of the show I interviewed her in the dining room of the hotel where she was staying with her Hot Band, their newest recruit Albert. Seems he was asked to replace Burton who’d gone off to play in Elvis’ band, so he was following in the footsteps of his idol, hot on his tail in fact. 

        I learned from her that Albert hadn’t even rehearsed with her band before their first show together. “It came to a stage where we needed a firm commitment from James (Burton) but an Elvis tour came up right at the time we needed him to do some dates with us, so we needed a new guitar player real fast,” Emmylou told me. 

        It was Emory Gordy, the Hot Band’s bass player – he’d seen Albert playing with a latter day line-up of The Crickets – who introduced Lee to the fold. “He came down to see us at a place in San Bernardino and joined in to play every song,” said Emmylou. “He didn’t miss a lick all night.”

        The Hot Band were sat at an adjacent table, polishing off a very late breakfast. Emmylou beckoned Albert over to join us and I shook hands with him for the first time. “I was supposed to go along to two or three gigs and watch James playing, but actually I’d listened to the records so I knew most of the things they were playing anyway,” he said, with the calm ease someone who knows his business. 

        “I’d been living in California for about a year after having worked with Joe Cocker but that had finished so I was looking for a new gig. I was asked to go down to some gigs and if I’d like to do it and I knew even before I saw the band that I would love to. Actually, James got the flu so I was rushed into the band faster than I expected. I went down to a gig to watch and thought I’d bring my guitar just in case. I ended up playing all night.”

    “Someday this band is going to have a rehearsal,” added Emmylou. “Just to see what it’s like.” 


Over the next few years, Albert befriended James Burton  the two can be seen playing together on YouTube  and joined Eric Clapton’s stage band but the next time I saw him was at Abbey Road Studios in 1981. He was there with Chas (Hodges) & Dave (Peacock), both veterans of the UK rock scene from which Albert emerged as a guitarist in the sixties with, among others, Neil Christian & The Crusaders and Chris Farlowe & The Thunderbirds. Chas & Dave were recording a live album in Studio One which had been refitted as a pub for the night and theyd asked Albert along to beef things up. Hodges had played bass in HH&F and both he and Peacock appeared on Albert’s first solo LP, Hiding, released in 1979. 

I chatted with Albert that night, and over a pint or two between sets asked him a bit about his long career. I used this information for his entry in my book A-Z Of Rock Guitarists, in which I recognised his dilemma, writing: “If ever there was a British guitarist who deserved fame and fortune in equal doses, it is Albert Lee. Shy, non-pushy and often indecisive, he has remained in the background while his peers have reaped the rewards that fate has bestowed on them. Without a doubt he is the finest country and western picker in the UK and his feel for the blues can rival Clapton. The truism that it takes more than talent to become a rock star is amply demonstrated in Lee’s case.”

Two years later Albert was on stage at the Royal Albert Hall with The Everly Brothers for their comeback concert, not only as their lead guitarist but as their musical director, not that you’d know it from the Ev’s Reunion Concert CD I have in my collection. None of the backing band – among them pianist Pete Wingfield – are credited in the flimsy liner notes, though Don does introduce them from the stage. As ever Albert’s guitar work is exemplary, mostly fills that replicate run for run the well-known Every Brothers’ recordings, though he takes a stinging blues solo on Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’ (titled, oddly ‘Blues [Stay Away From Me’] on this CD), and stretches out on the rock’n’roll 12-bars that close the show.

The last time I saw Albert was in June 2012 at a Guitar Master Class in Guildford promoted by Anderton’s, the city’s guitar store. To an audience I judged was 99% guitarists and 1% my wife, Albert, his hair now white, talked about his career, answered questions and, of course, dazzled everyone with a few songs, interspersed with immaculate solos, played on a Music Man guitar with whom he had a sponsorship deal. During the questions, someone asked him why he resigned from Eric Clapton’s band. He played the chug-a-lug riff from ‘Lay Down Sally’ and asked: “Would you want to play that every night?”

A more poignant moment occurred when Albert, who nowadays lives in Los Angeles, talked about being shown around the Paramount Film Studios and finding himself in a storeroom that housed old props. “In there was the guitar that Elvis played in Loving You,” he said. “A lovely Gibson J200 acoustic, blonde. I picked it up but it was in terrible conditions. Its strings were rusty, its neck was warped. No one had cared for it. It was Elvis’ guitar. I wanted to weep.” 


        So big was the crowd that swarmed around him at the end that I was unable to fight my way through and say hello but it didn’t matter. I was simply happy that Albert was being acclaimed by those who recognised a master at work. A snippet of the Master Class can be seen on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0sfQJ7_7_M        

        The next day I bought the CD Albert Lee & Hogan’s Heroes Live At The New Morning, recording on December 1, 2003 in Paris. I’m listening to it right now.

        In 2016 Albert teamed up with Peter Asher to tour the world performing songs by Peter & Gordon, The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Now 78, Albert is touring the UK right now and the week after next will be at the Half Moon in Putney. See you there.